Beltane 2013: Union and Loneliness

Beltane fell on a Wednesday this year. It’s my favorite holiday, but even though it is a holiday of union, this year it leaves me feeling rather lonely. On Sunday I’d intended to rise early and make the trip across the river to my old church for the annual Beltane service — a tradition I resurrected when I was a part of the congregation and the Women’s Sacred Circle. It’s good to know that it still happens without me, but bittersweet. Even before M and I took the plunge and moved in together, I’d begun to pull back from the community at First Parish. It’s hard to say exactly why, although it’s definitely for more than one reason. Since the church is in Cambridge, there’s a regular turnover in membership. People finish their schooling and move away, or they pair up and move off to more affordable parts of the world. Once I’d looked on those people with disdain, but like so many of the people whom I’ve judged in my life, I came to find myself following that same natural progression.

I still remember the incredulity and joy I felt the first time I walked into the First Parish Cambridge Meeting House on a Sunday morning and heard an old, white man in a black robe saying things from a high pulpit that I actually agreed with. Things about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, the importance of social justice, the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. There was a banner above the door that said “Support Marriage Equality — We Do” — and this was long, long before the tipping point of public opinion on that issue.

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Mother Lil’s Jesus

“Try my Jesus,” she said. “My Jesus is your Jesus.”

She had the warm, rounded curves of a mature Jamaican woman. She wore white — white tunic, white pants, a white head wrap. Her name was Mother Lil.

When I arrived at the store, the woman at the counter gave me a slim, hardcover book bound in green. “Have her read Psalm 23,” I heard Mother Lil tell the woman.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want

I’d been raised on Bible verses. The Franciscans sang the entire mass, in a chapel suffused with Sunday morning sunshine. But what I remembered was Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. What I remembered was the dingy gray Cathedral where a fat Archbishop in a gaudy dress rubbed oil on my forehead and told me to go forth and be a soldier of the Lord.

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Open Letter to Garrison Keillor

Dear Mr. Keillor:

I am writing in response to your recent article in Salon.com criticizing Cambridge, my home church of First Parish Cambridge (Unitarian Universalist), and the Unitarian Universalist faith in general.

I have been a loyal listener of Prairie Home Companion since you first went on the air in the 1970s. I have always loved listening to the News from Lake Wobegon, the gentle and forgiving and open-eyed way that you described the imperfect and well-meaning individuals from a small town in Minnesota that seems to resemble your own. I listen to the Writer’s Almanac every day. In many ways, your soothing voice and gentle words have followed me all the days of my life. I have dwelt in the house of public radio my whole life long. Your work has been a source of comfort and inspiration to me since I was a small child.

That is why your recent article was particularly dismaying and disappointing to me. I am not angry about what you wrote, Mr. Keillor, just very, very hurt.

In one of your stories, you describe a young man who is a dancer in New York City. In this story, you describe how much easier his life would be if he were desperately attracted to the woman who shared his apartment. But he is not attracted to women. You go on to say, “his life would also have been easier if he were a lawyer.” Like that dancer in New York, I discovered some things about myself that have been very hard for me — and many people — to accept. I am a bisexual woman, and I am a witch. Neither of these things did I choose for myself, anymore than I chose to have blue eyes. These labels do not define me, but they are a part of my identity, just as much as my blue eyes and my love for Prairie Home Companion.

After leaving the Catholic Church of my birth, and after many years of practicing my beliefs in private and seeking a spiritual home, I became a member of First Parish Cambridge. I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation because it was the only church that would take a witch as a member. I discovered for the first time in my life a vibrant, organized, active community of people with deeply held beliefs that I shared. These beliefs and their creed may be different than yours, but they are beliefs nonetheless. They deserve to be treated with the same respect as those of mainstream Christianity, of Judaism, of Islam.

UUs care passionately about things like social justice, the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the interconnected web of existence, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Do not mistake our aversion to written dogma for wishy-washiness. Wishy-washy people do not work for the survival of Jews in Nazi-occupied Germany. They do not face criminal charges to keep immigrants from dying of thirst in the desert. They do not face violence and death in their own houses of worship.

You accuse us of having no creed. Our seven principles and six sources are even easier to understand than the Apostles’ Creed.

One of the most hurtful things you said in your article, Mr. Keillor, was that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and that if we don’t like it, we should go off and celebrate another one. Christmas is a part of my cultural heritage, and I refuse to abandon it to bigots and dogmatists. Furthermore, most Christmas traditions have pagan origins, including the Christmas tree, Christmas caroling, the exchange of gifts, and the Yule log. Good Yankee Congregationalists and Calvinists like the Rev. Lyman Beecher even refused to celebrate Christmas.

According to many Biblical scholars, it’s much more likely that Jesus was born in the spring. But there’s already another big Christian festival at that time of year. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called Easter (from the German Ostara), a holiday that, like its pagan predecessors, celebrates life, death, and rebirth with the coming of the spring. Easter is also full of traditions that date back to its earlier pagan origins. I, for one, am not going to deny my children the pleasure of an Easter egg hunt in the service of theological purity.

Religion, like all of human experience and culture, is constantly evolving. As a Protestant, you should be well aware of how much your version of Christianity differs from that of Rome. And religious tolerance has always been one of the bedrocks upon which American society has rested. Please don’t fall into the same trap that Rev. Fred Phelps did. As a Christian who celebrates the birth of your Lord Savior Jesus Christ, you are no doubt aware of these words from the Book of Peter:

Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.
1 Peter 3:8-9

I will not repay your insult with more insults, but with this wish: that you be treated with the same kindness, tolerance, and forbearance that all beings deserve.

Faithful America, Religious Liberal Traditions, and Why I Belong to a UU Church

I came across the activist group Faithful America a while ago and really appreciate the message they stand for. Political discourse in this country around religion has been very much shaped by the religious right. Faithful America aims to reshape the discourse to include members of more liberal religious traditions. Their latest campaign is to shape some of the debate happening during this year’s presidential campaign. There’s a “compassion forum” live on CNN this Sunday at 8pm. You should vote on which issue to have the candidates address: click here to do that.

Whenever I talk to someone new, I feel self-conscious saying things like “I know her from church” or “I do lay ministry,” because as soon as people hear the word “church” slip from my lips I know they’re making all kinds of assumptions about my religion, my politics, and my beliefs. For the record (are the new viewers gone yet?), I have been a practicing witch for more than a decade. Most of that time I spent as a solitary practitioner, although I did study with a coven in Connecticut and also ran a website for About.com on the subject that included virtual ritual in chat rooms (not to mention mountains and mountains of emails, and the time-sink-hole morass of bitchy pagans forum). I belong to First Parish Cambridge, a Unitarian Universalist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Years before I attended a Sunday service at the church, some friends of mine introduced me to the CUUPs rituals that take place on Fridays near the Sabbats of Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, and sometimes Samhain. I appreciated CUUPs’s eclectic approach to pagan practice and was also impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge possessed by the facilitators.

While the notion of a liberal religious tradition is not entirely new to me, my experience at First Parish Cambridge really was life-changing. To steal the words of my ex-girlfriend, it was an important part of my re-churching. It wasn’t until Sunday services at First Parish that I actually heard the man up in the pulpit saying the exact same things I believed. The words in the hymnals weren’t full of things about Jesus, only-begotten Son of the Father saving us from eternal damnation. They were about a hard-working Mother God, a loving Father God, a Spirit of Life that imbues us all. Instead of the “thou shalt nots” of the 10 Commandments, the seven principles talked about things like the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings, the importance of social justice, and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

People like to make fun of the UUs for having wishy-washy beliefs. At the beginning, I used to laugh along with those jokes. But I don’t anymore, because I see the Unitarian Universalist movement as a group of people with very deeply held beliefs. They’re beliefs not based in shame however, but in the irrepressible presence of the Divine in all aspects of existence: in human beings, in society, in the earth itself. People need deeply held beliefs to fight the genocide of the Jews in Nazi Germany, or speak out against the excesses of the McCarthy era, or take practical steps to fight racism, or get arrested protesting the genocide in the Sudan, or support the rights of gay families to equal treatment under the law.

The UU tradition allows for a heterogeneity of beliefs that includes secular humanists, deists, Buddhists, “Jew-U’s”, pagans, Christians, and others. It also has something sadly missing in the Catholic church of my youth: democratic governance. All members of a congregation have a say in how the congregation is run, and all matters of theology and the like come up before the General Assembly each year. Ministers don’t get any more say in the running of the church than lay people.

I never expected to find a congregation that so completely shared the same views as me, and certainly not one as active, welcoming, and thriving as First Parish Cambridge. As a result, I give back a great deal to the church, both with an annual pledge and with a fair amount of lay ministry. I’m co-leading a Sunday service for Beltane this year on May 4. If you’re in the neighborhood and would like to hear me preach, please come by. It’s the second lay-led service the Women’s Sacred Circle has done in the past 12 months, and I hope there will be more to follow.